March Madness: Figuring out a chalky Sweet 16 from an odds and betting perspective

The betting story from the first week of the NCAA men’s tournament was easy to spot: Favorites were the way to go.

It has been a chalky tournament. Favorites are 30-22 against the spread, and double-digit favorites are 14-3 ATS according to John Ewing of BetMGM. Favorites went 15-1 straight up in the second round. Teams getting more than 50% of the bets are a remarkable 38-13 against the spread, according to Bet Labs via Ewing.

In other words, casual bettors had a much better first week in the tournament than they’re used to.

It’s a Sweet 16 with all the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds still alive for just the fifth time since the NCAA tournament expanded in 1985. The madness this March has been that practically everything has gone to expectation, John Calipari-led teams aside.

Let’s take a fresh look at the NCAA tournament with Yahoo Sports’ Frank Schwab and Scott Pianowski, with all odds from BetMGM:

What do we make of all the favorites winning? Is it a sign for this week?

Frank Schwab: Favorites dominated the first week of the NCAA tournament, and I believe all the chaos from conference championship week was a big factor. Would Indiana State, the No. 1 seed in the Missouri Valley who lost in the conference tournament, have been more competitive than Drake? Or a lower seed like UC Irvine (No. 1 in the Big West, was upset in the conference tourney) instead of Long Beach State? Probably.

It’s fine though. Cinderellas are fun and it would be nice to see a couple more, but having all the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds and two of the four No. 3 seeds will make for good matchups. I do expect more upsets this week. It’s hard to imagine all four No. 1 seeds are getting through to Arizona. I’d put the number at two (UConn and Purdue).

Donovan Clingan and the Connecticut Huskies were one of the many favorites to advance to the Sweet 16. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)Donovan Clingan and the Connecticut Huskies were one of the many favorites to advance to the Sweet 16. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Scott Pianowski: I felt a little cheated from the weekend, when the favorites went 12-4 ATS and 15-1 straight up (Clemson was the lone upset, and it was a minor one). I’d like more chaos and entropy, please. We saw three classic overtime games in Round 2, but in each instance the favorite righted the ship and held serve. There’s not a true Cinderella left in the field, unless you count NC State (borderline; the Pack keeps winning elimination games, but it’s not like they’re some once-a-lifetime mid-major, and they were favored over Oakland in Round 2).

But the lack of upsets means we get better matchups going forward. That’s the reward. Connecticut is the only double-digit favorite for the Sweet 16. I suspect the earth will shake if the Huskies are somehow upset, even by a good San Diego State team, but you can talk yourself into anything for the remainder of the slate. This is a feature, not a bug.

Which team still alive has changed your mind the most, in a positive way?

FS: I could say NC State, because I wasn’t sure that a good week at the ACC tournament meant they’d make a Sweet 16, but I don’t assume the Wolfpack will be around much longer. I’ll go with Purdue for my answer. They were already respected but I think they put to rest a lot of the questions about their tournament failures. Utah State was not a bad team and Purdue beat the Aggies by 39 in the second round. I picked Purdue to win it all in our Yahoo expert pool, and yet I’m more confident now in their ability to win the championship. This is a team that can knock off UConn if they meet.

SP: Duke moved the needle for me. Those losses to North Carolina and NC State at the end of the season feel more excusable now. The Blue Devils played a very good James Madison team in Round 2 and destroyed them. I had long suspected Jared McCain might be the sneaky key to Duke’s offense, and while everyone looks better when their shot is falling, McCain rarely makes a bad decision. He’s got decent size for a guard, can get his own shot, will chip in with rebounding. I’d selfishly like to see him stick around for a while, but I know he’s already projected to be a first-round pick.

When your team is young but filled with high-echelon talent, you often wonder if it’s a slowly developing Polaroid, something that could blossom by the tournament. I had suspected Kentucky might be that type of team; good lord, what a horrible take. But I had Duke beating Houston all along in the Yahoo staff brackets, and that wouldn’t even feel like a major upset anymore.

Which team still alive are you lower on after last week?

FS: It’s hard to nitpick any team in the Sweet 16. Plenty of teams would be happy to win ugly and make it to the second weekend. I think my answer here is Marquette. Houston could be too, after barely escaping a Texas A&M team that underachieved in the regular season, but I think the Cougars will be fine. Marquette was up just four on Western Kentucky with about eight minutes left in the first round, and they barely escaped in the second round against a Colorado team that was in the First Four. Marquette is good but didn’t look like a strong No. 2 seed.

SP: The Alabama-Grand Canyon game made my eyes bleed. Poor ball-handling, bad decisions, a bunch of bricks – the game finished 40 points below its posted total. It’s very difficult to score just 62 points against Alabama; these guys can’t stop anyone. North Carolina entered the tournament refocused – sometimes I think it’s actually good to lose in your conference tournament, assuming your berth or seed isn’t hanging in the balance – and had two easy, crisp wins. I suspect the Heels might bury the Tide on Thursday.

I like Marquette more than you do. The only two teams to beat the Golden Eagles over the last 20 games are Connecticut (America’s slaughterhouse five) and Creighton. Given Marquette’s lack of depth, it needed Tyler Kolek to come back healthy. He looked great in the first week. I expect Marquette to finally end the Wolfpack’s magic carpet ride.

Which Sweet 16 game are you looking forward to most?

FS: I think Duke vs. Houston is going to be very good. The Blue Devils looked like potentially the best team in the sport before the season started, and while that didn’t come to pass during the regular season the talent is plentiful. How does that match up against Houston’s band of mostly no names who are extremely well coached and form a fantastic college team? I think Duke can make a Final Four and live up to that preseason promise, but the Houston game will be a brawl.

SP: I’m on board with your pick, but you also know I can’t wait to fade Rick Barnes. The Volunteers held off Texas in part because the moment felt too big for the Longhorns and coach Rodney Terry. Now Tennessee is likely in trouble against Creighton, an experienced team, a super-efficient offense, a defense that contests and harasses but rarely fouls. The Big East only getting three bids was a joke – this was a very good conference, save for two punching bags at the bottom of the league. Creighton’s been battle-tested.

Greg McDermott is a terrific coach, too – it was a joy to watch him play chess against Dana Altman last week. I suspect Barnes didn’t binge The Queen’s Gambit. This won’t be a shameful exit if Tennessee loses, but I think the wrong team is favored.

What do you make of the updated title odds?

FS: Let’s reset the board quick for all 16 teams:

UConn +200

Houston +550

Purdue +600

Arizona +800

North Carolina +1100

Tennessee +1300

Marquette +1800

Iowa State +2000

Duke +2500

Gonzaga +2500

Creighton +2500

Illinois +3500

Alabama +4000

San Diego State +8000

NC State +10000

Clemson +10000

UConn is really good but +200 is way too short for my tastes. Especially in a field that has all eight No. 1 and No. 2 seeds still alive. Purdue stands out because I think they’ve gotten over the ghosts of past tourney failures. The Boilermakers looked confident.

But let’s be real, the value here based on talent, upside and maybe even the path is … Duke. Yeah, sorry Blue Devils haters. I think they should be closer to Tennessee in the odds than along with Gonzaga and Creighton. Duke has the fifth-highest KenPom rating among the teams still alive, and the first four are all shorter than 10-to-1. I’d like Duke to beat either Marquette or NC State in the Elite Eight. If they can get past Houston on Friday we might be watching Duke next week too.

SP: I still fully expect Connecticut to win it all, not that you can take them at that price. If you have to play one of the top four choices, Purdue is the most reasonable number. But Duke, Creighton and Marquette are all interesting mid-level values. I don’t hate North Carolina at that price, either.

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